Trump

“Weeping,” a South African anti-apartheid song, sung by Vusi Mahlasela

Donald Trump was was not elected despite universal disbelief that it was possible. He was elected because of universal disbelief that it was possible. The most crucial factor in his resistible rise was the profound faith that it couldn’t happen here. I shared this; I was as punch-drunk as anybody by midnight Tuesday. But the blitheness had been almost everywhere; and what kind of unreal vision of the United States, and of our strange moment in history, did it show?

There are thousands of examples but I’ll restrict myself to the field of punditry. Back in February, Jonathan Chait — who now, accurately, says “Collaborating With Donald Trump Is Doomed to Fail” — wrote that liberals should “earnestly and patriotically support a Trump Republican nomination”

The first [reason], of course, is that he would almost certainly lose. Trump’s ability to stay atop the polls for months, even as critics predicted his demise, has given him an aura of voodoo magic that frightens some Democrats. But whatever wizardry Trump has used to defy the laws of political gravity has worked only within his party. Among the electorate as a whole, he is massively — indeed, historically — unpopular …

At that point, Trump was running 3.4 points behind Clinton in the Real Clear Politics polling average, not a number suggesting the ironclad historical inevitability of defeat. Come May, George Packer in the New Yorker wrote that “Democrats probably won’t need the votes of the white working class to win this year. Demographic trends favor the party, as does the bloated and hateful persona of the Republican choice.” When that appeared, Trump was 3.1 points behind, and gaining. And the day before the election, the New York Times devoted a long, detectably gleeful article to describing “Trump’s Last Stand,” painting the desperate “neediness and vulnerability of a once-boastful candidate now uncertain of victory.” Thirty-six hours later, the vulnerable loser was President-elect of the United States.

oct31-nov13_2016_trump-nocrop-w710-h2147483647

Too soon: Cover for New York Magazine‘s election issue (published October 31, 2016), by Barbara Kruger

The willful blindness, the willingness to treat a tiny and tenuous lead in unreliable polls as a promissory note for a future landslide, infected almost everybody — from journalists to diehard Democrats to disaffected non-voters to, possibly, Donald Trump himself. There was, clearly, a faith in the historical process, a belief that a country that elected Barack Obama twice had put itself on a certain course irreversibly. In fact, Dr. King’s overquoted assurance about how the arc of history bends might be valid for the longue durée, but it wasn’t a guide to betting on the elections of 1980, or 1994, or 2010. Even many right-wingers, though, saw Trump as far too radical a break from the going neoliberal consensus to have a chance. Then there was a very standard ignorance that people you don’t know might have a different take on things — thus the Times‘ Nick Kristof, completely unable to locate an actual Trump voter in the 10018 zip code, had to interview an imaginary one. Finally, there was a touching faith in the United States itself, in the goodness of its people and its institutions (“If you step outside the pall of the angry campaign rhetoric, you see that America’s institutions are generally quite strong,” David Brooks wrote, with Trump just six points down and rising). This was particularly poignant among the Left, often accused of hating America but in truth especially insistent that it could never go that wrong.

Which America, though? To call Trump a breach with the United States’ traditions is to lop half those traditions from the field of view.

"Through a Looking Glass Darkly" by Mr. Fish (www.clowncrack.com), 2013

“Through a Looking Glass Darkly” by Mr. Fish, 2013. (Please see comment below for some more information about the portrait’s source.)

Racism and rage are older than the Republic, and they’ve never been in hiding. They are only-sometimes-latent possibilities in American life, part of the permanent repertory of rhetorics that politicians and entertainers call upon, part of the cache of emotions for citizens to feel (and fear), constant forces waiting for circumstances to unleash them. The assumption that all this hatred shrank to inanition through some combination of Obama, Lena Dunham, and Will and Grace was self-defeating. Trump is not “unprecedented“; nor does he represent a past that, as Clinton kept saying, we “can’t go back” to. He’s part of us, then and now. In living memory, George Wallace struck nearly all the notes in the Trump octave, down to the strutting, preening, boorish machismo (his famous threat to give a recalcitrant judge “a barbed-wire enema” could have come out of Trump’s mouth). Wallace never made it near the Presidency. but he got 45 electoral votes. The man he helped make President, Richard Nixon, added to a subdued version of Wallace’s racism a deep paranoia, a passionate adoration of foreign dictators, and a profound reliance on the indigenous surveillance state. It’s hard to remember this now, but a lot of sensible Americans believed that the United States was careening toward fascist politics and authoritarian rule under the Divine Milhous in 1972 — and that only the Watergate scandal forestalled it. A good many on the Left have been comparing Trump to a “Third World dictator.” It’s an insult to a Third World that give rise to Thomas Sankara, to Nelson Mandela, to Salvador Allende, to Jawaharlal Nehru. (It also echoes Trump himself, who repeatedly said the United States was becoming a “Third World country.”) But it has a scrap of truth if you mean the kind of kleptomaniacal, deadly autocrats the democratic, idealistic US has inflicted on its hapless allies in the global South for decades. Trump’s corruption, his shadowy relations with an overweening foreign power, and his alliance with domestic security cadres like the FBI suggest a regime worthy of Cold-War Guatemala. And that’s not “un-American”; it’s of the Americas, of us. It’s our history, too.

I don’t underestimate Trump’s threat. Wallace was defeated by the limitations of his regional appeal, by a still-resilient Democratic Party, and by the need of a suburban bourgeoisie to take its racism in slightly more civil form. Nixon’s undoing was an opposition Congress. Trump faces none of these things. His lust for power is enormous. There’s very little to stop him — so much for those “American institutions.” The menace of fascist authoritarianism is very real. Trump is a perfect storm, where all the foulest impulses in the national life come together with no visible check or balance. There is a lot of talk now about the dangers of “normalizing” Trump, treating his Presidency as if it were business as usual. The real “normalization,” though, happened during the campaign: treating the daily life of the United States as though placidity, “conflict resolution,” and consensus were the way things always had been and should be. This is an insane thing to think about the country at any time, but particularly in a year when police violence was on full display, when Guantánamo was still a going concern, when just over the rainbow the state was killing people in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. We only start to understand Trump when we see these horrors as the unwritten constitution of the “normal.”

The US left is now in crisis yet again, this time arguing whether Trump’s victory should be ascribed to racism tout simple or to rage at the impoverishment of the white working class. It’s an important argument so far as it informs the question What do we do next? But it’s useless when conducted on Facebook where everything turns into either-or. Racism is not an abstract entity separable from historical circumstances. It is extremely concrete; the pressure it exerts on individual bodies, individual lives, is drawn from specific and immediate conditions that rouse it, shape it, use it, and give it strength. There is a long history in the United States of politicians channeling economic powerlessness into racist fantasies of power; local caudillos such as Tom Watson, or Theodore Bilbo, or Frank Rizzo knew exactly how to work this in their neighborhoods, on their streets. It’s better, though not entirely exact, to think of racism through the metaphor of latency again: as a set of possibilities immanent in the United States, waiting for the particular junctures where they can become not just potential but actual, can feed on blood. These are possibilities immanent in people, also, in the repertory of dreams and delusions available to every white person (and probably to many people of color). If Donald Trump sets up his Muslim registry, I can indulge the fantasy of marching to City Hall and putting my name on it, preferably while flashbulbs explode like excited Valkyries. Or I can fantasize about informing on the undocumented Pakistani store clerk who shortchanged me. Both fantasies are dangerous, in very different ways. Neither has much to do with reality — Trump’s registry is likely to be a subtler thing, specific to immigrants in ways that will obviate white-savior illusions, and less reliant on pliant informers than on invisible electronic surveillance. My point is, though, that the reality of unrestrained state power in which more and more of us will live, will oblige us to examine ourselves unsparingly, with a cold eye toward our motives and our dreams. An inner moral rigor resists power even as it runs the risk of reproducing it; it is the only recourse when everything else calls out for compromise. Trumpism will work by universalizing mistrust. Part of the necessary response is to mistrust oneself.

"Go Back to Sleep, America, Nothing to See Here," by Mr. Fish (http://www.clowncrack.com), 2016

“Go Back to Sleep, America, Nothing to See Here,” by Mr. Fish, 2016

But it’s not just personal. Economics counts, and a left that can’t address this isn’t a left. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 was probably the largest transfer of wealth from poor to rich in human history, a massive expropriation of the already-expropriated. We are still living with the consequences. (Despite all the pity accorded poor white people in the last week, the most acute suffering the collapse caused fell upon people of color. This doesn’t delegitimate the anger of the white working class, many of whose hopes and present realties were also destroyed. It does remind us again that racism divides capitalism’s victims not just from one another, but from reality.) What if, as Paul Rosenberg asks, Obama had taken even small steps toward tangible justice in his first year in office: prosecuting the culpable crooks in the financial industry, bailing out homeowners the way the Treasury did Wall Street, securing union rights instead of colluding in their destruction? Would the African-American as well as the white working class have felt a confidence that transcended the vicissitudes of identity politics, and turned out in sufficient numbers to defeat Trump? It’s not enough to say “We’ll never know.” People on the left know what is right. They shouldn’t allow the persistent sense that Obama is a decent man to derogate the certainty of what should have been done then, or to deflect from what has to happen now. Justice is not “normal” in the United States, but it needs to be.

"Dead End," by Mr. Fish, 2016

“Dead End,” by Mr. Fish, 2016

We also need to scrap the palliative fiction that Trump’s populism, which turns economic fears into racist terror, is some sort of blow to neoliberalism or the “elites.” Divide and conquer is the classic strategy of capitalism in power, and that’s true whether the power rests with Ruhr industrialists or New York investment bankers. Trumpism is perfectly consistent with this. Fredric Jameson points out that “today, all politics is about real estate“:

Postmodern politics is essentially a matter of land grabs, on a local as well as a global scale. Whether you think of the question of Palestine, the settlements and the camps, or of the politics of raw materials and extraction; whether you think of ecology (and the rain forests) or the problems of federalism, citizenship, and immigration; or whether it is a question of gentrification in the great cities as well in the bidonvilles, the favelas and the townships and of course the movement of the landless — today everything is about land.

You can add Standing Rock, or Julius Malema; it’s absolutely true. The world is full. Capitalism has seized and commodified nearly all the land on earth, with the exception of Amazonia, some scattered areas of tribal or indigenous commons (now being stolen by police and the World Bank), and a few national parks. The space for expansion is gone; what’s left is to battle over what’s already branded, owned. No coincidence, then, that the most powerful engine of the world economy will now be ruled by a real-estate magnate, whose only skill is stamping his personal brand on things, a grotesque version of private property as pure performance. No one is better qualified than this idiot to wage capitalism’s war over control of space, to defend its hard-thieved acres and squirrelled-away square feet, to keep the rents too damn high.

Democracy in the United States was predicated, for its first two centuries or so, on land (once taken from its original users) being plentiful and cheap, and labor (at least in its free forms) scarce and expensive. These conditions slowly built a stable, somewhat contented working class who could bargain collectively, join the bourgeoisie, afford to own things. Since the 1960s, in the neoliberal ascendancy, there’s been an immense reversal. Land — or, more properly, space, whether farmland or a downtown loft — is in short supply and increasingly expensive. Meanwhile, there’s more than enough labor for the skewed new economy, and real wages have kept falling. This is how Trump made his indeterminate millions. It means an economy of massive inequality, misery, and hyperexploitation. It means the end of the apparent stability of the United States. The politics of such a lifeworld are inherently unstable. As Mike Davis has repeatedly shown, the burgeoning dispossessed will be a constant threat to the possessions of their dispossessors. The state will use more and more violence to protect the property of those who sustain it. Repression will become more and more continuous and constant; resistance will find fewer and fewer spaces to survive. Donald Trump is the ideal leader for this new world of walls and cowards. He is the ideal weapon.

We are in a violent new era, and we are not sure how to live. We will have to educate ourselves in many things we thought we knew. We will have to learn a different kind of speech: one that shocks but not mindlessly, one that has a purpose, one for those who are not our friends or our fellow believers. We will have to reach outside our arrogance and our need for comfort. We will have to relearn old lessons of patience, cunning, and endurance. We will have to humble ourselves before those who have fought this kind of fight before; suddenly, the lessons of Andijan or Mohamed Mahmoud Street may mean more to people in Seattle or Atlanta than they ever thought possible. For myself, I sit round thinking of Auden:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.
              (“Spain,” 1937)

Or Brecht:

It takes a lot of things to change the world:
Anger and tenacity. Science and indignation,
The quick initiative, the long reflection,
The cold patience and the infinite perseverance,
The understanding of the particular case and the
understanding of the ensemble:
Only the lessons of reality can teach us to transform reality.
                (“Einverständnis,” 1929)

 Or:

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Government by moral panic

A separatist militiaman looks at  the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP

A separatist militiaman looks at the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP

I met Pim de Kuijer once or twice, perhaps, and Martine de Schutter once, I think. He lobbied in the Dutch parliament on behalf of Stop AIDS Now; she fought for universal access to HIV prevention at Bridging the Gaps. They were both smart and young and full of enthusiasm, and they are both now dead somewhere in a field in eastern Ukraine. The enthusiasm is what I will remember. You can rebuild expertise, reconstruct lost formulae of scientific knowledge, but whatever you do you can’t recapture that intangible spirit which wants more than anything for the world to change. It seems to me that the loss of that spirit alone has set AIDS activism, which has never had much time to lose, back years.

Martine de Schutter

Martine de Schutter

Still, the mourning for them and other colleagues who were on the way to the 20th International Aids Conference in Australia was disserved and distracted by a numbers game. Less than 24 hours after Malaysian Air Flight 17 crashed, a Murdoch paper reported:

More than 100 AIDS activists, researchers and health workers bound for a major conference in Melbourne were on the Malaysia Airlines flight downed in the Ukraine.

It is believed that delegates to the 20th International AIDS Conference, due to begin on Sunday, will be informed today that 108 of their colleagues and family members died on MH17.

International media have been tossing this figure around for days, The airline has released the flight manifest, and there’s no sign that anywhere near a third of those aboard were actually bound for the Melbourne conference. The figure may have come from an interview with a single person, in shock but with no direct knowledge of who was on the plane:

images cIn a slower era, journalists might have checked what he actually knew before reporting, but this is the age of short attention spans. In fact, the International AIDS Society (IAS) has identified six passengers as traveling to the conference. More may be named in time, but those deaths will certainly be “an order of magnitude smaller than what has been reported,” as Chris Beyer, the IAS’s incoming president, said. This is one of many confusions in the speculative fog. (Fox News, for instance, reported that 23 US citizens died; in fact there was one holder of dual US and Dutch passports.)  It’s minor; except it means that some chronicler of AIDS activism, looking at the real toll of six dead against the initial reports of eighteen times that, will say, “It wasn’t so bad.” An ersatz relief, impossible without the initial extravagance of error, will blur the real gravity of the loss: a small affront to the dead, to what they did, to their incendiary enthusiasm to do more.

Nearly everybody believes that Russian separatists using Russian weapons shot down the plane: everybody, it seems, except for the Russian media, its readership, and regular viewers of Russia Today. Unanimity is itself cause to preserve a sliver of skepticism. We still don’t have absolute proof, and the forensic investigations haven’t even begun. (This is largely thanks to the separatists: they’ve moved the bodies, tampered with the wreckage, seemingly looted the site, and held investigators at bay.) Nearly all the evidence points that way. But David Remnick, in the New Yorker, keeps the focus on what we do know:

What’s far more certain is that Vladimir Putin, acting out of resentment and fury toward the West and the leaders in Kiev, has fanned a kind of prolonged political frenzy, both in Russia and among his confederates in Ukraine, that serves his immediate political needs but that he can no longer easily calibrate and control.

Is that a microphone in the ceiling? Pavlovsky speaks

Is that a microphone in the ceiling? Pavlovsky speaks

Remnick interviewed Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Putin adviser who broke with the boss in 2011. If a parasite could guide you through the guts of its host, it couldn’t speak with more exactitude than Pavlovsky does of the Russian security state and its intestinal windings. He knows Putin’s interests in Ukraine well. Remnick delicately omits this, but back in 2005 leaked tapes (possibly doctored, possibly released as part of a Kremlin power struggle) implicated Pavlovsky in the poisoning of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, dosed with lethal dioxin midway through a campaign in which he condemned Russian interference. But let Pavlovsky speak:

Pavlovsky said … Putin has “created an artificial situation in which a ‘pathological minority’—the protesters on Bolotnaya Square [two years ago], then Pussy Riot, then the liberal ‘pedophiles’—is held up in contrast to a ‘healthy majority.’ Every time this happens, his ratings go up.” The nightly television broadcasts from Ukraine, so full of wild exaggeration about Ukrainian “fascists” and mass carnage, are a Kremlin-produced “spectacle,” he said, expertly crafted by the heads of the main state networks.

“Now this has become a problem for Putin, because this system cannot be wholly managed,” Pavlovsky said. The news programs have “overheated” public opinion and the collective political imagination.

“How can Putin really manage this?” Pavlovsky went on. “You’d need to be an amazing conductor. Stalin was an amazing conductor in this way. Putin can’t quite pull off this trick. The audience is warmed up and ready to go; it is wound up and waiting for more and more conflict. You can’t just say, ‘Calm down.’”

Putin has been running a historically unusual sort of government: government by moral panic. He promotes pandemics of fear, viral outbreaks of outrage at imagined enemies. And he doesn’t conjure threats to security or values just to boost popularity, but as a basic tool of governance.

You could say that dictators and demagogues do this a lot, but Putin’s different. Hitler kept up an unceasing propaganda war against the Jews. Stalin’s ferocious demonology exorcised enemy after enemy – Social Revolutionaries, engineers, Trotskyites, German spies, eventually the Jews too, always with some overlap between them. But totalitarian ambition subordinated public outrage to state power. The occasional “spontaneous” pogrom in Germany, like Kristallnacht – carefully stage-managed, in fact — quickly gave way to the action of the police, the Gestapo, the forces of order. The anger enabled but never displaced the task of expulsion and the ultimate end of genocide, which only a dispassionate bureaucracy could efficiently commit. Meanwhile, under Stalin, in 1930s Moscow, anybody holding a spontaneous, unauthorized protest against enemies of the State would have been declaring himself an enemy of the State too: here I am, a Kautskyite deviationist, Kolyma here I come. It wasn’t just that Stalin was an “amazing conductor.” He shot the orchestra members one by one, while the audience stayed frozen in their seats, hands on the armrests, humming patriotic songs in unison, no sudden movements allowed.

Neo-Nazis abuse a kidnapped, alleged gay Uzbek, July 2013, from a social-media page

Russian Neo-Nazis abuse a kidnapped, allegedly gay “Uzbek,” July 2013, from a social-media page

Putin’s panics, on the other hand. whether about evil Ukrainaians or subversive homosexuals, aren’t meant to efface other movements and players, to erase other institutions in a coordinated exercise of power. They enlist the Church, the neo-Nazis, school administrations, nationalist intellectuals, diasporic allies in the near abroad — but without subordinating them. It’s all chaotic. The government’s bloodthirsty rhetoric charts a general direction, but everybody is set loose to follow it as best they can. This is in the best tradition of moral panics, which offer wide scope for what the sociologists call “moral entrepreneurs,” opportunists of anxiety, to stake out arenas for action and go after enemies in their own way. The anti-homosexual legislation may be the best example. Draconian though it is, almost nobody has been prosecuted since its passage. The State hasn’t actually done much. Rather, the law encourages everybody from priests to foreign “pro-family” ideologues to right-wing gangs to launch their own campaigns. It asks them, in fact, to support the State, which desperately needs their help in rooting out perversion. In its weird way, it’s thus an instrument of that most stereotypically American of political practices – coalition-building, uniting disparate interests into a party of shared goals. The dictatorial law seems almost democratic in the way it works.

Or consider Putin’s strategy in Ukraine. Pundits and politicians compare it to Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland and its ethnic Germans. Yet what’s missing in Russia is the triumphal confidence that State power can always prevail. Look back at Nazi propaganda during the Sudeten crisis; it showed German might irresistibly smashing the country cousins’ chains:

Poster for a “yes” vote on annexation to the Reich, in a referendum held in the Sudetenland on December 4, 1938

Poster for a “yes” vote on annexation to the Reich, in a referendum held in the Sudetenland on December 4, 1938

Or it depicted Hitler as savior to little blond Sudeteners dreaming of deliverance:

Propaganda postcard sent to Sudetenlanders during the 1938 crisis

Propaganda postcard sent to Sudetenlanders during the 1938 crisis

By contrast, Russian propaganda on Ukraine has a pathetic stress on victimhood. There’s a genocide going on in the potato fields, Russians are being exterminated, but Russia seems powerless on its own to prevent it. (The #SaveDonbass hashtag campaign, which started on Twitter a couple of months ago and showed ostensible ethnic Russian victims, almost exclusively exploited images of sheer wide-eyed helplessness.)

images

Hence the reliance on militias, generously armed but semi-independent rebel groups, uncoordinated actions compensating for what the State can’t do. Neither Stalin or Hitler would ever have tolerated this wild welter of assistance. The Gestapo would have rounded up the anti-gay thugs with their vigilante delusions, and the insurgents would have been handed not missile launchers but tickets to the Gulag. Something’s changed.

Ethnic Russian self-defense forces stand in front of a government building, Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: AFP

Ethnic Russian self-defense forces stand in front of a government building, Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: AFP

You could point to many things, but one is overriding. Russia is a nuclear power and a near-dictatorship, but it’s a weak state. This is paradoxical given the overweening authority Putin manages to project, but it’s true. Putin has full authority over the security establishment, but that is no longer enough to endow unquestioned solidity upon the state he built. For one thing, Russia is no longer an isolated command economy. It’s been integrated into the capitalist world. While Putin has bullied the unruly Yeltsin-era oligarchs into submission, that still doesn’t help him control the country’s livelihood, dependent instead on international vicissitudes of supply and demand. This is particularly true since a single commodity sector — energy — dominates everything, and prosperity rides on fluctuations of markets out of the government’s hands. You can police dissidents, but you can’t police the price of natural gas abroad. If the old Soviet economy has been “privatized” — more precisely, in neoliberal fashion, parcelled out to a bunch of ill-coordinated players — so, too, have other parts of Soviet power. Corporate conglomerates, a military-industrial complex, rich and insecure churches, noisy social movements (more of them on the Right than the Left), local governments carving out their own extortion zones, and many more mini- and mega-oligarchies multiply. As happens when a once coherent power is privatized, each tries to establish its own small dictatorship over whoever it can influence. This Russia, one scholar says, is ” a highly corrupt state that still cannot fully control its borders, monopolize the legal means of violence, or clearly articulate its role in the contemporary world.” For all his shirtless preening, Putin is no muscle-man able to wield top-down control. Instead he must exhort, scare, cajol, and distract the rest of society till he gets his way.

Government by moral panic is a way of governing when the government fears impotence, as in a morning nightmare where your legs won’t move: its power shaling into paralysis, its strength sloughing off like sand.

We’re going to see more of this. We live in an era of weak states. The most authoritarian among them can’t muster half the authority its ancestors did. The neoliberal state has big biceps to flex, but it hobbles along on crutches. How can a leader feel secure in his position when foreign bankers who price your bonds can make or break your popularity, your ministers, your country?

Vote if you want to, it won't make a difference: Thatcher's mantra of neoliberalism

Vote if you want to, it won’t make a difference: Thatcher’s mantra of neoliberalism

More and more, continent after continent, governments are promoting moral panics as ways to govern. These conflagrations of fear can convulse society, but they convince people they need the state again, for all its frailty and fecklessness. Look at Egypt, where a military regime reestablished control over a fractious country through a year-long campaign of demonizing (arresting, shooting) Islamists,and journalists, and refugees, and Palestinians. Or Israel, where Netanyahu’s administration hid and lied about the deaths of three Jewish teenagers to aggravate a fever of popular panic and rage, and stoke pressure for a saving intervention by the state’s favorite instrument: its troops. Or, for that matter, the United Kingdom, where a weak coalition government (the first of its kind in almost a century) keeps looking for bogeymen to justify its existence. It’s tried Muslims and Romanians so far, with limited success, but there are more to come.

Or the United States. America is always different — exceptional, they say; it’s the home of private enterprise, after all. And the panics are privatized too. Occasionally, true, you get governments whipping up people’s anxieties. (Remember those color-coded terror alerts of the vigilant Bush years? Today my Fear is Orange, Mr. Ashcroft!) But just as often you see entrepreneurs drumming up the fear and loathing for their own ends.

Increasingly the US is a classic weak state, a casualty of neoliberalism in its several forms. Years of right-wing amputations whittled its government down, and now conservatives committed to a big-business version of Russian Nihilism refuse to allow the legislative process to exist. Its politicians still praise it as the “indispensable nation,” but it governs itself like Somalia. Like any weak state, it falls prey to warlords, though they have offshore accounts and paid talk-radio pundits rather than weapons caches. Usually they stir up panics to pressure the government into deploying its dwindling powers on one of their pet causes. It’s a competition: to get what’s left of the state on your side. Immigration is a wonderful source of panics, all in this entrepreneurial spirit. The goal almost always is to get the government to abandon its remaining responsibilities to people inside the border (food, jobs, health care, those vague things called civil rights) and devote all its energies to policing the border itself. Imagine you have a plot of land, and a limited number of bricks. You could waste the bricks building a house to live in, or you could put up a nice thick wall around the whole vacant lot. The answer — Who needs a roof, anyway? — becomes more obvious as the panicked voices keep shrieking, Do something! They’re walking on the lawn! 

I told you to build that wall: Anti-immigration cartoon from 1891

I told you to build that wall: Anti-immigration cartoon from 1891

Moral panics come in many kinds, but one feature is consistent. They always have victims. Scapegoating is intrinsic to the package. Governing by moral panic means governing by exclusion.

Immigrants, minorities, the irresponsible and perverted, sex workers and trans women, the sick and susceptible, wayward young or useless old: somebody’s going to suffer. As our states get weaker, those marked for marginality multiply. In a kinder, gentler, more condescending era, states justified themselves by providing for people’s welfare. In the neoliberal age, states will justify themselves increasingly by their capacity to exclude. Legitimacy will derive from the quantity of victims.

i started with the fog of speculation shrouding a terrible disaster, uncertainty created by the compulsory celerity and fake urgency of the Internet. These days, rumors have wings while facts slog in leaky galoshes. This, too, makes government by moral panic possible. Strong states survived on facts. How large was the grain harvest? How many gallons of water in the reservoir? What is the average height of army conscripts from the southern province? Only that kind of exactitude made their interventions, whether for welfare or security, work. In the world of moral panic, facts disappear. What’s left are speculations; and governments that want to rule, politicians who want to keep their power, learn to surf the waves of supposition, like a traveller in a dream who realizes the road has become a river.

Everything that’s solid melts. Those floating numbers of the dead– six? eight? 100? 108? — are a symptom of our fluid and oblivious condition. They speak of a world of nameless panics and unattributable terrors, inaccessible to the consolations of proof, where the one thing certain is that there will always be more victims.

Ethnic Russian self-defense units stand guard at of  local government headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Ethnic Russian self-defense units at local government headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Resources for the unbelievers, on aid conditionality and LGBT rights

Aid received per capita across the global South, 2007: From wphr.org

I’ve been working desultorily (a beautiful word: say it slowly: it seems to capture being lazy but just alive enough to claim you’re still doing something) on an article on aid conditionality and LGBT rights.

This all comes, of course, from the controversy launched last fall by David Cameron’s declaring his government would cut development assistance to governments that committed violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This statement was idiotic in the pure, Greek sense: Cameron was, in essence, talking to himself. It came without any prior consulting with activists in the countries in question, and was an ill-planned effort to get domestic voices in the UK to shut up and stop pressuring the PM.(They did, obediently.) The ensuing backlash, across Africa and elsewhere, proved exceedingly discouraging about the idea. However, Hillary Clinton’s announcement that LGBT rights were a new US global priority gave new life to the project, and US advocates have urged the Obama administration to enlist American foreign aid money in the cause.

Northern governments have ben conditioning development aid on other issues for a while, especially in the last 30 years– usually affixing economic strings (hire our consultants! buy our goods! privatize your hospitals, if you want our aid!), less often political or rights-related ones.  I’ll raise specific questions in my article about whether something around sexuality- and gender-related abuses makes them peculiarly resistant to being stopped by such linkages. There are also legitimate concerns, though, about whether such linkages ever work the way they’re meant to, or are ever justified. I’m skeptical they do, or are. I’d like to get some discussion going as I finish the article, and so I’ll share some resources here for others who are skeptical, or in favor, or undecided, in hopes you’ll argue or respond. Respond! Use the comments section, or write me directly.

1) First off: here’s an interview with Radhika Balakrishnan, of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, that lays out some of the concerns with conditionality clearly.

2) The October 2011 statement by dozens of African activists opposing aid conditionality in the LGBT rights sphere is here. Hakima Abbas’s “Aid, Resistance, and Queer Power” expands on its points; her essay can be found in this booklet from Sexuality Policy Watch (pp. 16-19) along with “Aid conditionality and respect for LGBT people’s rights” by Luis Abolafia Anguita (pp. 9-15).

3) An especially important paper you should examine is this report by AWID (the Association of Women in Development), succinctly called Conditionalities Undermine the Right to Development. It sets out a wide range of facts and arguments on the issue. Because it’s 128 pages long, I’ll try in the following points to summarize some of the background with which it deals.

4) A lot of people (including many of those pushing for aid conditionality) don’t know about the political negotiations in the last 10 years over the issue of how aid works, or doesn’t. By “political” I mean: Northern and Southern governments have actually discussed the subject, sometimes with each other! In 2005, a major ministerial-level meeting produced the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, responding to a wide perception that aid wasn’t being … well, effective. Over 100 countries joined to affirm five pillars of meaningful assistance: Ownership, Harmonisation, Alignment, Results and Mutual Accountability. (OHARMA?)  OK, enough buzzwords. The key commitment under “Ownership” was that conditions on aid, if any, should be jointly owned. Donors should

draw conditions, whenever possible, from a partner’s national development strategy … Other conditions would be included only when a sound justification exists and would be undertaken transparently and in close consultation with other donors and stake holders.

Pragmatically, this recognized that conditions imposed from outside simply weren’t being met. Three years later, another high-level forum in Ghana produced the Accra Agenda for Action (AAA, a way better acronym). This proclaimed, “We will continue to change the nature of conditionality to support ownership” by developing countries. It mandated donors to “work with developing countries to agree on a limited set of mutually agreed conditions based on national development strategies,” and to “document and disseminate good practices on conditionality.”

Both these documents can be found here, and straightforward summaries are here and here. It’s important to see that the emphasis on joint commitments, as opposed to taking aid hostage, severely limits how far donor governments should use aid to enforce rights goals that aren’t fully shared (or aren’t integrated into development strategies). Do we want LGBT rights to be the basis for backtracking on these principles?

Anti-Debt Coalition activists protest an Asian Development Bank (ADB) meeting, Jakarta, 2009 (Reuters)

5) Civil societies and social movements engaged intensely in the lead-up to the Paris and Accra meetings, as well as a further gathering in Busan, Korea, in 2011. And while you might suppose that women’s movements, for example, would want aid more conditioned on rights policies — since they were urging women’s rights and gender equality as core components of development planning — almost exclusively they called for less conditionality. Part of their reasoning involved the possible devastating effect of slashes in aid. They also saw that conditions foreign governments imposed actually prevented civil society in developing countries from being part of the rights discussion: everything turned into an argument between the donor and recipient governments, with domestic voices ignored. A broad coalition of feminist and gender-equality groups in 2011, for instance, called on donors to

[m]ove away from policy conditionalities towards consistent application of concepts of multiple responsibility, accountability and transparency among both donor and developing countries. This could be advanced, for example, by supporting democratic scrutiny of development goals, policies and results. Policy conditionalities can have negative impacts on people, particularly on women and girls. They undermine the principle of ownership and contradict the right to development and self-determination.

Similar criticisms can be found here.

6) The Paris and Accra documents have come under considerable fire for not going far enough. This (briefer) briefing paper from AWID summarizes some of the critiques. And this analysis by the UK-based Overseas Development Institute looks at the debate over aid effectiveness “through the recipient lens,” by talking to officials in governments that get aid. One criticism is that the Paris-based language doesn’t put sufficient stress on “predictability” of aid — states and societies need to know that money isn’t going to go away when the givers shift their whims. Conditionality is a prime generator of unpredictability in aid. The fact that many Northern donor governments don’t have a cross-party consensus on LGBT rights worsens the prospects in this particular sphere. What happens if Obama imposes conditions on development aid based on getting rid of sodomy laws; then Romney defeats him, and suddenly sodomy laws are OK; then Hillary Clinton gets elected in four years, and abruptly the conditions are back on again? Manic roller-coaster swoops and swerves in the terms of assistance don’t just leave governments confused; they mean that anti-poverty, health or infrastructural programs in country after country can’t plan on future funding, or their own existence. That’s a heavy responsibility for LGBT rights to bear.

7) When advocates talk about “conditionality,” often they mean the set of economic — or combined economic and political — strings that donor governments started attaching to aid in the 1980s and 1990s. International lenders, the World Bank and IMF, were even more radical and reviled movers in this. But surely human rights conditions are a different, friendlier thing altogether?

never in history have so many owed so much to so little money from so few

No. What’s happened for 30 years is that donors tie human rights into a bundle with something called “economic freedom,” or maybe “good governance,” conceived as governing the economy with a particular set of virtues that will make particular classes rich. After all, they’re all “freedoms,” right? Rights thus get bound up with the infamous “Washington Consensus”: Privatize everything!  Shrink the state! Down with protection, up with free trade! Deregulate!  This neoliberal “reform” brings wealth to people who are plugged into global flows of capital. It impoverishes pretty much everyone else — women, minorities, unpopular groups even more than others. When human rights get wrapped up with its strictures, they lose their popularity as well. LGBT rights are already seen, in many places, as imports from the insidious Outside. If wedded to imposed neoliberal policies, their street cred likely shrinks to zero.

A fine example is a United States concoction called the “Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)” This strange being, set up by the Bush presidency in 2004, reveals how fake-friendly you can make aid conditionality appear, with the right rhetoric. It’s a foreign aid agency with a ton of US money, and a mandate to give it out only based on supposedly clear standards and criteria. If LGBT rights are going to be integrated into US giving, the MCC is one place it will start — and advocates are already targeting it to establish LGBT benchmarks for giving.

The MCC grades developing countries on 17 indicators; they must exceed a median score on a number of them to be eligible to apply for money. One set of indicators is called “Ruling Justly,” and includes “civil liberties” and “political liberties.”  This is the human-rightsy side. Another is called “Economic Freedom,” and includes “trade policy,” “inflation rate,” and “fiscal policy.”  This is the telling part. The “trade policy” benchmarks, for instance, come directly, explicitly, from the Heritage Foundation: a right-wing Washington think tank whose mission — self-described — “is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.”

MCC is all about eliminating trade barriers and denuding countries of defenses against foreign purchase and foreign sales. This means ending protective, import-substitution policies for building strong domestic industries: policies that have been the main means, in the last hundred years, for poor countries to develop. It means prying markets open to invasions of US goods, while eviscerating local producers. (The US government’s cabinet-level Trade Representative, statutorily responsible for doing the prying, sits on the MCC’s board.)  It’s striking, too, that one of the absolute rather than relative indicators the MCC demands is “inflation rate,” where it insists on a strict maximum of 15%. This restricts countries’ power to devalue their currencies and stimulate their economies. It locks the receipients of MCC aid into the same austerity trap that Eurozone nations are writhing against today.

A: Because of all the gay cruise ships that will visit

Even the most humane of the MCC’s indicators — the “Investing in People” silo, evaluating public spending on things like health and education — tends toward the lowest standards (and doesn’t pay even lip service to the concept of economic and social rights). The MCC is mainly a brass-knuckle enforcer of neoliberalism, with some salving concessions to human rights in the form of “Ruling Justly” (a bizarre phrase in itself).   Despite its cheerful visage, it’s a sinister strategy. Some serious caution is called for before letting LGBT rights be part of its package. To tie them to a project likely to inflict penury on subject populations could well be disastrous.

I’m not the only one who says this. For some detailed critiques of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, check out the three articles — by Maurizio Carbone, Emma Mawdsley, and Susanne Soederberg — here. (Because these texts are Rapunzelled in behind academic firewalls, I’ve uploaded them and let down their hair so you can read them. If the authors object, fine, but then they’re bad leftists.) And if you want to find out about your own country’s relations with the MCC, that information (the agency is at least transparent!) is here. My advice: Watch out.

But the difficulty transcends the MCC.  The donors most likely to give a friendly hearing to LGBT-rights conditionality are donors already practicing conditionality based on “economic liberalization or “open markets”: conditions that, steeped in neoliberalism, are abhorrent to most peoples of the global South. 

“Symptoms of Neoliberalism”: Cartoon from Mexico, by El Fisgón

8) My real problem with the arguments for aid conditionality goes deeper. It’s that the advocates stay confined within a tightly limited and lopped version of human rights, very different from the one most people in the world believe in.

Proponents speak as if, on one side, there were human rights lined up neatly: free expression, freedom from torture, freedom from sodomy laws, and so on. Then on the other, there’s development money. The only relation between the two sides is that, if a country respects the rights, it should get its development money. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t get any. Or not as much.

You would never imagine, hearing these folks promote this vision, that development is itself a human right. The UN General Assembly adopted its “Declaration on the Right to Development” in 1986, stating:

The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.

The Declaration and Programme of Action of the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights also dealt with the issue extensively: “Democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing,” it affirmed. And:

States should cooperate with each other in ensuring development and eliminating obstacles to development. The international community should promote an effective international cooperation for the realization of the right to development and the elimination of obstacles to development.

Imagining that human rights are largely unconnected to development, except to legitimate restricting it, fits with a certain Anglo-American perspective in which economic and social rights don’t exist. But if you do believe development is a right, then to endorse conditionality as part of the standard human rights toolkit is, needlessly and destructively, to pit human rights against each other.

The “Quezon City Declaration on AID” — a 2007 manifesto by a coalition of Asian movements and NGOs — states that

The kind of aid we want must be premised primarily on a recognition of the history of colonization of countries across Asia, a history that persists in the continued exploitation by the North of the South, particularly the peoples of Asia and the region’s biodiversity. From this lens, aid becomes a matter of global redistributive justice, a just righting of historical wrongs.

In this light — and from the perspective of development as a human right —  it’s notable that, in 1970, donor countries pledged to devote 0.7% of their GDP to overseas development assistance. Almost none of them do so. In 2010 only five OECD countries met that mark; the US stood mired at less than a third. Surely the first priority of US and European advocates, including LGBT rights advocates, should be to increase their countries’ overall giving to meet their human rights commitments. They shouldn’t use LGBT rights as an excuse for governments to fail their pledges and give less.

It’s only by understanding development as a right that you can see how the Quezon City statement can both call on states to reject conditionalities, and

enjoin both donors and national governments to adopt a rights-based approach to aid giving, which means ensuring that human rights standards and social development principles guide all development cooperation and programming in all sectors and in all phases of the programming process. Right-holders and their supporters such as human right NGOs should be included in decision-making processes relating to aid money and allocation. Attention must especially be given to those whose voices are at risk of being silenced or marginalized vis-à-vis aid: women, children, and adolescents, or non-citizens such as in/formal migrant workers, indigenous peoples, small farmers and fishers, etc.

A “rights-based approach to aid giving” means not using rights to justify cutbacks, but using aid actively and creatively to promote rights, including funding decision-making and participation by the most marginalized communities. The mounting calls for aid conditionality in the LGBT sphere suggest a failure of imagination, an unwillingness to think through creative ways that aid can further rights, not curtail development. We can do better than that.